The 10 Greatest Archaeological Discoveries
Archaeology has become an indispensable tool for understanding the Tenach and the lands of the Tenach. In the last century all Bible "science" was based on analysis of the text itself, called the "School of Higher Criticism." Since many of the so-called scholars who employed this method—mainly those in Germany—had hostile biases against Judaism and Jews, their conclusions were therefore quite destructive.
But with the beginning of this century, things changed completely. My own teacher, the late Professor William Foxwell Albright, at Johns Hopkins University, pioneered in applying archaeology instead of texts to understand the Bible. And it is through archaeology that we have made amazing discoveries that have thrown hitherto unknown light on biblical accounts and the world of the Bible. If you ask a number of people to enumerate 10 of the most important archaeological discoveries, you will get a variety of answers. I have selected those that I believe have the most immediate relevance to the Jewish concept of our history.
When Napoleon invaded Egypt in the end of the 18th century, he was en lightened enough to take with him an army of scholars. Among them was Francois Champollion, who concentrated on deciphering the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. These picture signs had baffled the world for centuries. Then luck struck, and in a place called Rosetta, in the Nile Delta, Champollion found the key to the mystery. The black stone that he found is divided into three sections, each written in a different script: Greek, ancient hieroglyphics, and Demotic, the cursive version of the hieroglyphics. Champollion logically concluded that this was one single text, repeated three times.
He then compared the Greek names in the upper part of the stone with out standing words in the hieroglyphic text: the names Cleopatra and Ptolmy, which had a kartouche—a frame—around them indicating the special importance of these words. Once Champollion could read those two words he soon broke the "code" of the rest, and so established the first dictionary of Egyptian signs that stood for whole concepts. From then on, Egyptology became a rapidly spreading science that unraveled the entire spectrum of thousands of years of Egyptian history, which is so closely related to ancient Jewish history.
At the same time that Egyptian hieroglyphics were being deciphered, scholars were finding the key to the cuneiform texts used throughout the kingdoms of Babylonia, the Hittites, Assyria and Persia. While the Egyptian language did not vary much throughout the millenniaÄjust as their architecture and art hardly changed—the languages using cuneiform letters varied a great deal. But the most important basic texts discovered about 100 years ago were the Hammurabi Code and the Gilgamesh Epic. Hammurabi, probably identical with Amrafel in the Torah, was a great codifier. His Code is well preserved, and its laws and types of punishments have been compared by some to the Seven Noachide Laws.
The Gilgamesh Epic describes the creation and flood stories, with a man named Utnapishtim taking on the role of the biblical Noah. The flood story is found in many countries and periods in history, even China. Obviously this discovery was relevant to the study of the Bible.
About 130 years ago, a large stone slab was found in what is today Jordan, written in Moabite, a language very similar to Hebrew. Although the Arabs who found the stone decided to break it up into small pieces to increase sales, an impression of the intact stone has been made that gives us the whole text. This amazing stone tells the story of the kings of the Kingdom of Israel, called "Beth Omri" in the stone. Of course, as all nations have done throughout history—except for the Jews! —the inscribers of the stone tailor history to glorify themselves. Thus their god, Kemosh, is described as more powerful than the G-d of the Jews. But the stone confirms important details in the Bible.
Although Egyptian history was monolithic throughout the millennia, a revolutionary change took place under a young king of the New Kingdom's 18th dynasty. His name: Amenophis IV. He dismantled the polytheistic religion of his forefathers and recognized only one god, Aten, the sun disk, as the supreme ruler of the universe. Amenophis changed his name to "Akh-n-Aten" and moved his capital from Thebes to Akhetaten, today's Tel el Amarna. There, some 120 years ago, archaeologists found a huge number of cuneiform tablets representing the official correspondence between Egyptian kings, mainly Amenophis III and his son Akh-n-Aten, and the governors of Canaanite towns, which were in reality Egyptian colonies at the time. Names such Urusalima—Jerusalem—appear in these letters.
But the main surprise is that a people called the Habirus are mentioned who invade Canaan from the desert and who threaten the Egyptian colonies. Luckily for the Habirus, Akh-n-Aten was a poetically and religiously inclined king without a taste for warfare. He therefore did not offer any help to his governors to defend themselves against the Habirus. This happened around the year 1375 B.C.E. If we equate the Habirus with the Hebrews, this gives us a date for the Exodus. Consequently, Ramses II, who ruled about 200 years later, could not have been the Pharaoh of the Exodus. The monotheism of Akh-n-Aten would have been influenced by the Jews, including Moses, who lived in the royal court for some time.
At the turn of the century a hoard of papyri written in Aramaic were found in Egypt on the island of Elephantine, near what is today the Assuan Dam. These amazing texts, most of them well preserved, describe the conditions of a Jewish military colony that had been assigned the duty of defending the border of the Persian empire against invading Nubians—Ethiopians—around 480 B.C.E. Because the Jews there descended from Samaria, the kingdom of Israel, their observance of the Torah was not what we today would call Orthodox. They built themselves a Temple but amalgamated it with some pagan Egyptian or Persian religious practices. They did keep Pesach very strictly, as reflected in the famous Passover Papryus that describes the removal of Chametz before Pesach through special permission of the Persian ruler in Shushan. Commercial contracts, bills of divorce and other documents shed light on the legal practices of these Jews living during the Second Commonwealth.
In 1929, farmers in Syria discovered tablets bearing cuneiform-like signs in a location called Ras Shamra. These texts were soon deciphered as old Canaanite epics and religious texts. The cuneiform signs, instead of numbering some 3,000 used in Babylonia and Assyria, were limited to about 28 signs, each representing one letter of the alphabet. The texts reflect religious beliefs that mirror some of the pagan practices described in the Bible, especially as they center on the gods of Baal or Elyon, the goddess Anat or Ashera, and god of death, Mavet. This then was the religion that our patriarchs met when they entered Canaan. Some historical names are useful for us, too. For example, the name Daniel refers to a mighty ancient king in Canaanite history. This explains the occurrence of this name in the Book of Ezekiel (Chapter 14) and has nothing to do with the prophet Daniel of a much later age.
The greatest discovery of all—at least for us Jews—is of course the Dead Sea Scrolls, discovered near Qumran in 1948. Entire libraries can be written about them and have in fact been written. I was probably the first Jewish scholar who applied parallels from the rabbinical and midrashic literature to these texts. My publications, which number over 20, are now contained in the bibliographies in many scholarly books being published. The one main phenomenon that to me is most striking is the faithfulness with which Biblical texts were copied and handed over throughout 2,000 years of our history. Any child today can read the Qumran texts of 200 B.C.E. and see that they are practically the same as our Tenach today. Even the letters have changed very little over this enormous span of history. We can rightly be proud of this unmatched record of religious piety and reliability. The Qumran texts will occupy scholars for many generations to come.
In the second half of the 19th century, hundreds of thousands of discarded Jewish documents were found—mainly in the El Basatin cemetery outside Cairo—some in the famous Ben Ezra Synagogue. These texts are now housed in leading libraries in St. Petersburg, Cambridge and New York. Commercial texts, halachic (Jewish legal) response, liturgical poems, business and private correspondence and many more categories of writings are contained in this indescribable treasure of Jewish culture, religion and literature. Scholars for many years to come will work and publish in this field.
The latest important archaeological discovery is the stones from the ancient town of Dan, written by an Aramean king, and referring a few times to "Beth David." The full impact of this discovery has not yet been made, but it already sheds light on the powerful Davidic dynasty of the Kings of Judah.
The earliest biblical text outside the Bible was found in one of the hills of Jerusalem a few years ago—a small silver scroll that at first did not yield any writing. But the genius of one specialist, Mrs. Yardena, brought a sensation: The little scroll held the Priestly Blessing from the Torah, which we use daily. Written in the 7th century B.C.E, it is the earliest biblical text, outside the Bible, ever found. It gives us hope that many more and even older Biblical texts will be found.
I hope you will agree that this vast spectrum of archaeological discoveries has revolutionized our knowledge of the world of the Bible. They have brought so many personalities and events closer to us and prove the historicity of our traditions.
As more and more Jewish scholars apply themselves to this field, we will be blessed with unimaginable discoveries that will enormously enrich and strengthen our outlook as faithful, believing Jews.
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